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Feersum Endjinn, Iain M. Banks, Orbit, 1994, 279 pp.
Feersum Endjinn is Banks' fifth novel and his second non-Culture novel after Against a Dark Background. Banks' novels were always prone to rub against the grain of the genre, and this book continues this trend into the arena of style. Feersum Endjinn is constructed like a fiendishly difficult jigsaw puzzle, and demands levels of concentration at the most basic level of deciphering the events like a few other science fiction novels. What's more, each of the chapters is divided into four sections, each section with its own recurring viewpoint character. The fourth section of each chapter is devoted to a person named Bascule, who has a brain malfunction that causes him to spell everything phonetically. He notes that he should probably run his journal through a spell checker in a computer but never explains why he he did not take the time. Worse, he often meets characters who speak with lisps, and with two levels of semantic degradation, the resulting prose is often incomprehensible. This presents an interesting challenge to the reader, and the reader must possess near infinite patience. In fact, I began to suspect that Banks wrote the book in a fit of perverse humour, testing how arduous a task the reader would undergo in the name of an artsy experience. Here is a sample of Bascule's prose, from the first paragraph in which we experience it:
Here is another passage, as Bascule renders a speech of his friend Dartlin the sparrow:
It becomes clear quite quickly that the clever device of phonetic spelling could easily backfire against Banks. I had to be in a very peculiar mood in order to enjoy painstakingly making my way through Bascule's journal.
This particular problem aside, Feersum Endjinn is well worth reading. Once the pieces of the puzzle begin to come together, the scope of Banks' vision reveals itself in all its fierceness of imagination and vividness of idea. While the book is scarcely recognizable as hard science fiction, it puts most practitioners of that sub-genre to shame.
As I've said, each chapter of the book is divided into four sections. The first section tells the story of a woman whose mind and memory are blank, but who has amazing powers of intellect and learning. We follow her progress as she first wakes up and finds her way through society and towards the goal for which she has been created. The second section is about Gadfium, a scientist who is alerted to the news of a message received from the Plain of Sliding Stones. The message delights her conspiracy against the King. The third section deals with Count Sessine, a noble in the royal court who is murdered in base reality and many times in the crypt before he can find a safe haven for his virtual self. Sessine may or may not have been sympathetic to the conspiracy. Bascule the phonetic speller closes each chapter. He is a Teller, a professional retriever of information from the crypt.
The problem facing each of the characters and the entire earth is this: the Encroachment is a celestial phenomenon, a vast cloud of particles, that threatens to blot out the sun. Those left on earth are the descendants of people who chose not to go to the stars; the crux of the book is that everyone still on earth has little to no understanding of the technology that could protect them from the Encroachment. The crypt is virtual reality or cyberspace taken far past any other author's speculation; however, it too is mostly beyond the understanding even of Bascule.
As if all of this wasn't enough, Banks sets most of the action of the book in a gargantuan structure known as the Castle. I have already given too many spoilers, so I won't detail the nature of the Castle; suffice to say that the mind boggles at the original descriptions, and only slowly comes to comprehend what it might be.
I don't have much to add about the characters, as I felt that they were swamped in Banks' showy prose and speculation. Feersum Endjinn has many recompenses for the labour required to bull through to the end, and characterization simply isn't one of them. I ended up feeling quite fond of the novel, which has two somewhat contrasting explanations: a rationalization that I had not wasted my time and effort, and a real appreciation for the merits of the book.
Last modified: February 16, 2001
Copyright © 2001 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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